BOOK REVIEW: 'Hippie Homesteaders: Arts, Crafts, Music and Living on the Land in West Virginia': How Young Back-to-the-Landers Enriched the Mountain State

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.

Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.

West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads.  --"Take Me Home, Country Roads" --  written by Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert, and John Denver, and initially recorded by John Denver. It was included on his 1971 breakout album Poems, Prayers and Promises.    

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Why West Virginia? Why did thousands of artists, craftspeople, musicians, and other baby boomers come to the hills and hollows of the Mountain State in the 1960s and 1970s, when native sons and daughters were taking those famed "country roads" to places where there were jobs?

Huntington author and figurative sculptor Carter Taylor Seaton tackles that issue in "Hippie Homesteaders: Crafts, Music and Living on the Land in West Virginia" (West Virginia University Press, quality paperback with many photographs, notes, bibliography, index, 240 pages, $22.99).


BOOK REVIEW: 'Hippie Homesteaders: Arts, Crafts, Music and Living on the Land in West Virginia': How Young Back-to-the-Landers Enriched the Mountain State

My conclusion after reading this wonderfully readable book can be summed up in that real estate mantra (or cliche´) LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. This comes easily to me, since much of my newspaper career on five dailies involved real estate coverage.

West Virginia is an easy drive (or train ride, don't forget the AMTRAK passenger service that survives to this day in both the northern and southern parts of the state) from both the Midwest and the Northeast. 

These regions were the big feeders of transplants to West Virginia, although Mountain State in-migrants or transplants came from as far away as Beijing, China, in the case of Joe Lung, a potter who lived on a commune. 

As Seaton mentions in her interviews of forty people, cheap land and housing and friendly people were also factors, as well as the existence of a supportive state government, especially in the John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV and Gaston Caperton gubernatorial administrations.

Jay Rockefeller, born in New York City in 1937 and now a long-serving U.S. Senator, was himself a transplant, via the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) route. Many of the back-to-the-landers interviewed by Seaton came to the state as VISTA volunteers.

 Not specifically mentioned by Seaton, but a factor, in my opinion, is the presence of many colleges and universities in the state -- a large number for a state with only 1.8 million people. Places like Shepherd College, West Liberty University, Bethany College, Concord University, Marshall University, West Virginia State University (and its outstanding film program) and -- of course West Virginia University. Students at these institutions came from out of state and many of them fell in love with West Virginia and stayed.

Bob Thompson, a jazz legend from the greater New York City area, attended historically black West Virginia State College as a music major in the 1960s and stayed. The world-famous jazz pianist remains  a fixture on Mountain Stage.  Another college student who stayed was  Andy Ridenour, a native of the Washington, DC metro area, who attended Concord College (now University) in the 1960s, and was one of the Mountain Stage founders.

The arrival of talented, educated young people contributed to the creation of institutions like Mountain Stage, one of the longest running music programs on National Public Radio, on the air since 1983 and hosted by transplant Larry Groce, a 66-year-old native of Dallas, Texas.  

The two-hour show, produced by WV Public Broadcasting, is a showcase of music from the traditional to the modern and is distributed worldwide by NPR and the Voice of America. It was created by Groce, Andy Ridenour and Francis Fisher. Mountain Stage, like its Texas equivalent, Austin City Limits, introduced many people to the state in what could be called the second invasion of transplants, after the initial one in the 1960s and 1970s. Seaton writes that all of the creators and most of the regular performers on Mountain Stage are transplants.

Tamarack, just outside Beckley, is another Mountain State treasure that couldn't have been possible without the contributions of transplants. Tamarack opened in 1996 and has become a world-famous showcase for arts and crafts. Many states have what I call "Tamarack Envy" regarding this landmark on the West Virginia Turnpike (I-64-77).  I recall attending a live performance of Mountain Stage in the Tamarack auditorium when I lived in Hinton, WV. It was wonderful, complete with the beautiful song stylings of Julie Adams, who joins with Groce to sing the opening theme of the program, "A Simple Song" -- written by Groce.

Another factor that attracted people -- including in 1993 Dave and Liz Kinchen -- to the state is a catalog of farm and rural properties called the United Farm Catalog, produced since 1928 by United Country Real Estate of Kansas City, MO. 

We were living in Los Angeles and I came across the catalog and touched bases with real estate agents in Summers County that were in the catalog for our cross-country move. Seaton mentions the publication several times as a factor introducing people to the affordable land and housing in one of the poorest states in the nation in terms of per capita income. But it's a state -- as Seaton points out repeatedly throughout the book -- that is rich in welcoming people, many of who virtually adopted the tenderfeet-in-the-extreme newcomers and showed them how to survive in a state that has four distinct seasons -- maybe five if you count the mud season!

In conclusion, if you want to read about the REAL West Virginia, not the fictional state of "Wrong Turn" degenerates or moonshine-making hillbillies, pick up a copy of "Hippie Homesteaders" and find out what attracted a diverse group of mostly middle-class, educated baby boomers to the state.


Carter Taylor Seaton
Carter Taylor Seaton

About the author

Carter Taylor Seaton is a freelance journalist and figurative sculptor. Born and raised in West Virginia, she graduated from Marshall University and lived in Columbus and Atlanta, Georgia from 1985-1995 before returning to her hometown of Huntington where she resides with her husband, Richard Cobb. While living in Georgia, she began running and completed several marathons after she was fifty, including the Atlanta, Marine Corps, and New York City Marathons. For fifteen years, she directed a rural Appalachian craft cooperative to benefit low-income women. Ladies Home Journal nominated her in 1975 for its "Woman of the Year" award. 

Her first novel, "Father's Troubles", was named as a finalist for the prestigious ForeWord Magazine 2003 Book of the Year award in the Historical Fiction category. She is a regular contributor to several regional magazines and The West Virginia Encyclopedia. In 2007, her article on the impact of the back-to-the-land movement on West Virginia was featured in Appalachian Heritage literary journal and won the Denny C. Plattner Award for its Best Work of Non-Fiction.

Seaton's second novel, "Amo, amas, Unconventional Love Story", was selected as IndieReader Approved with 4.5 stars during their Discovery Awards competition. 

for David M. Kinchen's 2011 review of her novel "Amo, amas, mat…An Unconventional Love Story" click

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